Dolphins Are Still Dying Five Years After the Deepwater Horizon Disaster

A new government-funded study attributes the high rate of marine mammal deaths in part to the BP oil spill.

(Photo: USF/Reuters)

Feb 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico continue to die at high rates five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to a new government-funded study.

The report, published in the journal PLOS One, could have a significant impact on how money the petroleum giant must pay to restore the Gulf will be used to save imperiled dolphins.

The study “indicates that the current multi-year marine mammal unusual mortality event (UME) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico has multiple groupings of high bottlenose dolphin mortalities and may be due to different contributing factors, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said in a statement.

“It’s been fairly clear that the oil played a role in this situation, and obviously more science is always needed, but I don’t know that this study will change the strategy for BP,” said Lacey McCormick, communications manager at the National Wildlife Federation. “I think they will continue to dig in their heels and deny the science the whole way through.”

The study nonetheless can help scientists determine how to proceed from here, McCormick said.

“BP will have to pay billions of dollars under the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, and it raises the question of what do we do with this money,” she said. “We need to use science to determine how to use this money effectively on ecosystem restoration for dolphins and other species in the Gulf.”

The report, which was prepared by the National Marine Mammal Foundation and funded by NOAA, analyzed data from four groupings of dolphin deaths in the Gulf, three of which took place after the spill.

From February 2010 through the present, 1,305 dolphins stranded on Gulf shores, about 94 percent of which were found dead, making it the longest marine mammal die-off in the Gulf in recorded history.

Still, BP is repeating its long-held contention that the dolphin die-off prior to the spill is proof that the company is not to blame.

“The study on the Gulf’s ‘unusual mortality event’ (UME) reiterates what other experts, such as NOAA, have stated: the UME started three months before the Deepwater Horizon spill, and the cause or causes have not been determined,” BP said on its State of the Gulf website. “The study does not show that the accident adversely impacted dolphin populations.”

BP claims that various other factors likely caused all four die-offs, including cold water temperatures, freshwater runoff in Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, bacterial infestations, “and the increased public awareness and number of wildlife observers in the Gulf after the spill.”

But McCormick noted in a blog post that the study found that the 26 dolphins that died in Lake Pontchartrain prior to the spill had “tell-tale skin lesions” caused by freshwater and they were also exposed to unusually cold weather. “Therefore,” she wrote, “there is no reason to connect these earlier deaths with the ongoing deaths.”

NWF Gulf restoration scientist Ryan Fikes said in a statement: “BP executives need to quit bashing the science—and the scientists—and accept the company’s responsibility. It’s time for BP to quit stalling so we can get started restoring the Gulf.”